American McGee’s Alice
Or Lewis Carol’s opium binge.
The idea of capitalizing on a popular children’s tale by blending the original idea with a dark fantasy twist predates EA’s much more recent ‘Alice: Madness Returns’ adaptation, to which this game is an actual prequel. Outside the dreamlike imagery frequently attempting to pass off as an ‘edgy’ morbid take of a classic children’s tale, Alice is nonetheless a fun, high budget but fairly conventional action title.
Let’s take a step back. The off-kilter, borderline insane original books – “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”- are true masterpieces of the surreal, featuring little in the way of plot or straight narrative. While most people consider them works for children, they’re perhaps only fully appreciated by adults, filled as they are with so many obscure references, puns and other oddities. They’re also filled with fairly dark imageryâ€”for example, the Queen of Hearts has this odd desire to behead her enemies. It’s not frightening to most kids because it’s tempered with things that kids really like, such as smiling cats, talking animals and fantastical locations.
The books are wonderfully unpredictable and this game shares that one surreal sense of skewed reality. In McGee’s version, our heroine loses her parents in a fire and ends up in an asylum. She’s older than she was in the books, and though she’s wearing the familiar frock we’ve all come to associate with Alice, it is now decorated with “dark and twisted” tribal symbols and a skull broach to hold her bow in place. Topping it off with combat boots and dark hair, she ends up looking more like Christina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams.
On one particular count, the game is quite faithful to the spirit of Carroll’s book, putting forth a world where the “bad” adults consistently marginalize Alice. She returns to Wonderland to reclaim her sanity and finds that the Red Queen has gone on a rampage and enslaved the denizens of Wonderland. She immediately runs into the white rabbit (who, in his usual fashion, runs off) and the incredibly well voice-acted Cheshire cat, who with his tribal tattoos and earring makes him, in the words of Alice, look “quite mangy” as opposed to “dark and twisted.” He offers up occasional obvious advice and disappears. As you progress through the game, you’ll run across various familiar faces: the Queen of Hearts, the Mock Turtle, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Gryphon, and the Duchess.
Many people will talk about how “dark and edgy” McGee’s vision of wonderland is. The original DOOM (on which American McGee worked on) felt considerably darker because it inspired a sense of dread. The levels and character designs of Alice are infused with a sense of slightly morbid whimsy that owe a larger debt to Tim Burton’s vision of the afterlife in Beetlejuiceâ€”it’s all skewed angles and strange doorways. The game can never be truly horrific as it’s just too… oddly beautiful.
The entire production shows a lot of quality, from the weapon design to card soldiers that can be sliced in half with your knife. Alice looks fantastic and is well animated and voiced in the in-engine cut scenes. The Mad Hatter looks suitably mad, the Queen’s card troops look appropriately two-dimensional and the chess pieces in the spectacular White Queen levels are incredibly cute even when they attack you. In every other aspect this is a straightforward adventure, with lots of simple combat and sometimes too frequent platforming. The game’s a hefty affair, weighing in at several days’ worth of gaming, and the resulting story in all its nonsensical perplexity is somewhat of a bad acid trip. Play at your own peril.
System Requirements: Pentium II 400 Mhz, 64 MB RAM, 16 MB Video, Win 9X/ME/2000